(LifeSiteNews) — After the horrific knife attack by a Syrian refuge on a playground in the French Alps town of Annecy that left four infants and two adults wounded, France was in a state of shock. But as details of the event emerged, one figure stood out.
A “young man with a backpack” courageously confronted Abdelmasih H., the attacker, and chased him out of the toddlers’ enclosure, where he had deliberately wounded Alba, age 2 1/2, and her two-year-old cousin Ennio. A British girl named Ettie, 3, was also hurt, as was a Dutch infant, Peter, 22 months. One adult, Manuel, 70, was knifed and also injured by a stray police bullet, and a pensioner named Yusuf, 78, was slightly hurt by the assailant.
But more people would almost certainly have been hurt, or even killed, if Henri d’Anselme, 24, a practicing traditional Catholic, had not confronted the attacker, who appeared to be out for the blood of young children. He hit him with his backpack, confronted him eye to eye, and forced him to leave the playground.
“It was impossible to let people be attacked by this person who seemed to be a furious madman. He tried at one point to attack me, our eyes met, and I realized it was someone who was not in any normal state,” Henri later said. “There was something very bad in him that had to be stopped.
He had to be stopped – and here was a man who was ready to sacrifice his own life to save the lives of others. He brought a note of light and hope to the terrible story that was unfolding in the media and on social networks.
At the time of writing on Friday evening, the five victims who needed hospital care and spent about 24 hours in critical condition are out of danger and improving. It was the victims who were on Henri d’Anselme’s mind when the French media pressed him with questions, when he spoke of the “horrible” images that were in his mind. On his Instagram account, he wrote, “Thank you for all your messages of support! My thoughts go especially to the victims and their parents. I hope they will come through this.”
The slight, black-clad silhouette of the young man dropping a heavy rucksack in order to run closer to the knife-wielding criminal soon captured the imaginations of the millions of French people who watched a video of his heroic pursuit. He was quickly identified in Catholic circles as a former philosophy and international management student who is currently touring France’s cathedrals hitch-hiking and on foot in a nine-month bid to discover the over 170 masterpieces of religious architecture that are the fruits of centuries of Catholic faith in France.
His gallant figure was in a way the opposite of the Syrian refugee, an Oriental Christian who was heard shouting, “In the name of Jesus Christ” during the attack. “It is profoundly anti-Christian to attack innocent, unarmed and weak people. I don’t understand how someone can claim to be Christian and attack children in this way,” d’Anselme reacted.
To date, police and prosecutors have rejected a possible terrorist motivation for the attack. One witness noted that the assailant, who eight months ago had left his Syrian wife and three-year-old child in Sweden, where he had refugee status since 2011, after a divorce, according to some accounts, was talking about his wife and daughter while knifing the toddlers in the playground. The attacker has since been extremely agitated and refused to talk to the police, instead begging: “Kill me, kill me!”
Why did d’Anselme’s path cross that of Abdelmasih? “All I know that it was not by chance that I was there during my tour of the cathedrals. I crossed this man’s path and I reacted by instinct. I didn’t stop to think; to me it was unthinkable to stand by and do nothing, and I acted in the way a Frenchman should act. By that I mean that I followed my instinct and did all I could to protect the weakest,” he told Pascal Praud on CNews (from minute 47 on the June 9 program).
Asked why he thought he was not there by chance, Henri replied, “I think that on my cathedral path I crossed the blood trail, and I was in a way interiorly compelled to act, and to defend the pure innocent, the child who is attacked. What I really want to tell you is that anyone could have done what I did, any Frenchman should do this.
“I would also call on everyone who is watching to refocus on what is essential, always to keep in their inner mind that which is most beautiful and most great.
“When I went into action in the playground, it was the grandeur of the cathedrals that had nourished me and that was pushing me forward,” he added, when asked him about the pilgrimage that took him to Annecy on the fateful day.
He had another message for the French: “Now is the time to stand up and to stop letting ourselves be pushed around.”
D’Anselme acknowledged that he had been afraid, especially when the attacker tried to knife him, but he added that he was able to avoid being hit. “Yes, I was in fear for my life, but I was more in fear for the life of others, I didn’t want him to hurt anyone else,” he said.
Asked whether his parents or family had been afraid, he replied, “I have a beautiful and large family. As for my parents, I owe them for what I am and I know they would have reacted in the same way. And, yes, they’re very proud.”
He concluded that if everyone in France acted the same way, looking upward to what is good, beautiful and just and acting in consequence, France would be a better place.
He said that he was still praying continually, especially for the victims. He added that he had simply abandoned himself to Providence when the time came: “You just let the Virgin Mary and God take over and let them decide.”
But why was he on a pilgrimage, one might ask. As his tour progressed – Annecy was the 25th stage of his trip – Henri talked with the press and explained that he had set off because of a Senate report last year stressing the state of deterioration of France’s religious heritage buildings. As he traveled, he reflected on the motived that had led to the construction of the French cathedrals and on what they represent today.
He had chosen to set off on his journey a few months ago from the traditionalist abbey of Sainte Madeleine du Barroux, which was founded some 50 years ago by Dom Gérard Calvet, who had left his own monastery in order to be able to continue to celebrate the traditional Mass and follow his traditional liturgical life as a Benedictine monk. Dom Gérard was one of the spiritual “godfathers” of the Centre Henri et André Charlier, which founded the Pilgrimage of Christendom that since 1983, has put thousands on the roads from Paris to Chartres every year at Pentecost.
Henri d’Anselme was a habitué of the pilgrimage, a former boy scout and an active member of the youth group “Missio,” which organizes summer and winter camps as well as retreats for young people attached to the Traditional Latin Mass. He can be seen on Missio’s homepage picture as the second boy from the left.
Indeed, Henri d’Anselme can be seen as a typical offshoot of so many profoundly Catholic traditional families who made possible the rise of many communities in the aftermath of the crisis of the faith that followed on the heels of the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical reform: traditional priestly fraternities and institutes, seminaries, religious communities, independent schools, universities, chapels, priories and parishes, book publishers, youth movements, media, scouting groups, pilgrimages, cultural centers.
D’Anselme himself, who studied philosophy at the independent “Institut de Philosophie Comparée” in Paris and international management at the “Catholic-inspired” EMD business school in Marseille, worked as an apprentice during his business education at the French Catholic biweekly, L’Homme nouveau, writing, managing the media’s internet presence and taking care of the weekly “Club des hommes en noir” (Men-in-Black club) where every week priests from the FSSPX, former Ecclesia Dei communities, diocesan priests and religious and one layman (or woman) talk about hot topics. That is where I met him several times: a discrete, affable, calm and smiling young man.
His former editor-in-chief, Odon de Cacqueray, talked about the young man to a current journalist with L’Homme nouveau, Marguerite Aubry, who asked him whether he had been surprised by the heroic act.
“No, Henri’s action didn’t surprise me at all,” he said. “I was surprised it was him, because I didn’t know he was there at the time. But I wasn’t surprised by the way he reacted. Henri is a man of service, as he has shown through the many missions he has taken on in his various activities: scouting, and his Missio chapter in particular. He saw that he was needed and he stepped up to the plate, that’s all. He acted on instinct.
“It’s his background that speaks through this act: He was trained and educated to react to this kind of situation, which could just as well never have happened in his life. It was a human and spiritual preparation. The Catholic approach to death was not absent from his actions or was the spirit of service. His large family, the Catholic schools he attended, scouting, his involvement with Missio, all shaped him.”
Henri d’Anselme was received in Annecy on Friday afternoon by French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, together with another young man who joined him in pursuing the attacker after d’Anselme had tried to hit and stop him. He asked Macron for the favor of being invited when Notre Dame of Paris is reopened, hopefully next year.